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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 61 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Preserving the Community Voice*

Johnstown Tribune-Democrat
July 9, 2010
as "Newspapers in Battle as Technology Age Booms"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

A newspaper is many things to the community it serves. First and foremost, it reports the news, chronicling the events that happen daily. Many would understand this task as a paper’s primary role. Historians certainly do. When researching an event or a place, one of their first sources is the local newspaper archives. In the almost 130 years since the famous shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, the two local newspapers, the Nugget and the Epitaph, were invaluable at untangling the series of events that led to that 30 seconds of gunfire that forever enshrined the sepulchral name of an isolated mining camp.

When I was in my teens, my mother gave me a stack of old newspapers. Eagerly I read headlines about Pearl Harbor, and the battles in North Africa, Europe and the Far East. But of far more interest to me was the recollection of the everyday and the mundane. The price of a home, groceries, and clothes. Announcements of meetings, engagements, weddings. Stories about city council meetings and local political issues. And, of course, the breezy words of the local columnists. These stories painted a clear portrait of community life, allowing me to clearly imagine what it might have been like to live in that time and place.

A newspaper is also a public forum; a virtual speakers circle where editors, pundits, politicians, and just plain folks can air their opinions and passions. Left, right, center, radical and reactionary, all points of view are printed for posterity, fueling the community conversation.

A newspaper is also the community marketplace. Store ads help householders stretch their tight budgets and people with items to sell can meet people with items they want, filling the needs of both. Firms with work to be done connect with people with work to offer.

Students and their proud parents glow with pride when the Dean’s List is published, or when their club gets their picture taken. High School athletes become stars as their exploits share headline space with their professional heroes.

And in the days after we all pass from this life, we will be honored one last time.

Yes, a paper is many things to the community it serves. Yet, the march of technology has made it an endangered species. Many newspapers across the country are struggling to stay alive. Even the Great Gray Lady herself, the New York Times has been forced to make deep staff cuts as readership has plummeted. In Honolulu, Hawaii two papers, the Star-Bulletin and the Advertiser, who have spent much of the last 150 years scratching and clawing at each other, have buried the hatchet and merged. In smaller towns, the situation is even more critical.

This is a digital age. The Internet is the place where most of us now get our news. Some publications are mulling the action of PC Magazine, who last year stopped publishing a paper magazine in favor of a fully online publication. In what may be the first droplets of the wave of tomorrow, one small-town newspaper in Connecticut now charges a subscription fee in order to view its online content.

In some ways, it is a remarkable time in history. We are probably seeing the beginnings of the most important and fundamental paradigm shift in the history of mass communications, from analog to fully digital. In that process, old empires will fall and new ones will rise. Those who survive the transition will be the ones nimble enough to surf at the top of the wave of change, rather than wait below for the water to crash upon them.

But no newspaper, whether online, or in-hand, can survive without the support of the community it serves.

A newspaper is not only for its community, it is of its community. And when a community loses its newspaper, it also loses its voice.

And in a land where freedom of speech is the most prized of all our constitutional rights, silencing the voice of the community and the voice of her citizens would be a tragic blow to freedom.
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